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Published December 28 2011

North Dakota, federal officials weigh in on drones as law enforcement tool

FARGO - Law enforcement officials in the Fargo-Moorhead area said they haven’t used unmanned surveillance aircraft to search for wanted criminals, but they aren’t closing the door to the idea.

North Dakota’s federal lawmakers said they also support it as an option when necessary under unique circumstances.

But civil rights activists want strict standards put in place to regulate the domestic use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in order to protect individual privacy.

Two of the nation’s unmanned Predator B drones – based in Grand Forks – have aided local police in at least two-dozen surveillance flights since June, The Los Angeles Times recently reported.

One of those missions was in rural northeastern North Dakota, the newspaper said.

Predator drones are more commonly associated with military surveillance missions overseas, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection also operates eight drones to monitor the country’s northern and southern borders.

Law authorities in Fargo, Moorhead and Cass County said they’ve never called on the drones for assistance.

Cass County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Thoreson said he can’t think of a time when the drones would help local investigations.

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t use them, it’s just that we haven’t,” Thoreson said. “From a surveillance standpoint, it would be hard to see a situation that we would need that.”

Red River Valley SWAT team commander and Fargo police Lt. Ross Renner agreed it’s unclear when the drones might be helpful.

“Possibly in a rural environment, if we needed to search for someone,” Renner said. “It really depends on the parameters set by Customs and Border Protection as far as what they’re allowed to do and what we’d use it for.”

For example, the drones weren’t called in this fall when Cass County deputies and regional law enforcement agencies scrambled twice to apprehend suspected criminals who hid in area cornfields.

The first incident Sept. 28 was sparked by a domestic violence dispute, in which police didn’t know whether the fugitive was armed.

Authorities staked out a field near Argusville for 11 hours in nearly 90-degree heat. A Border Patrol plane and helicopter assisted in the manhunt, but no drones were requested.

“It was in such close quarters and with the heat,” Thoreson said, “if we couldn’t see anything 20 feet off the ground in a helicopter, I don’t know if the drone would’ve helped at all.”

Renner said he doesn’t think Federal Aviation Administration restrictions would have allowed drones to be used in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

The domestic use of the drones has sparked fears of invading personal privacy and violating constitutional rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently released a report calling for strict standards to regulate the use of UAVs and to protect Americans from secret surveillance.

The ACLU says the drones’ high-tech equipment – including high-powered zoom lenses, night vision, imaging and video – could make Americans vulnerable to an overreach in law enforcement power.

North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he supports “certain specific scenarios” when the Border Patrol’s aircraft – including the drones – should be allowed to help state and local law enforcement.

“As long as those assets are being deployed responsibly and within the framework of the law, I think it is entirely appropriate to utilize any and all tools to aid law enforcement officials – particularly when there is a real threat to officers’ safety,” Conrad said.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven agreed, calling aerial surveillance “a valuable tool for law enforcement.”

“UAS aircraft employed in law enforcement operations bring the latest technology, but at the same time, we need to use appropriate discretion and follow the law as we have with conventional aircraft to protect privacy,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541